Preferential Option for the Poor, Take Two

Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the Kingdom of God is theirs.” Jesus instructs his followers to engage in corporal and spiritual works of mercy, including feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. And Jesus warns his flock: “What you do onto the least of your brothers, you do onto me.”

In modern Catholic social-justice theory, good Christians must put the needs of the poor at the top of moral ratiocination. We must give a “preferential option” for the poor, as it were. Particularly in matters governing man’s relationship to man, protecting the poor and ameliorating their plight must always be paramount.

It’s a commonplace of secular contemporary socioeconomic discourse to ascribe various government-intensive solutions to address the plight of the poor. You see this in the “War on Poverty,” various social-welfare programs, the burgeoning diversity movement, anti-poverty activism and direct-transfer payments from the wealthy to support programs for the poor.

In “Preferential Option for the Poor,” new First Things editor R.R. Reno raises a salient point about this bedrock principle of Catholic social justice. He notes that we almost never consider poverty in anything but raw economic terms: No one seems much to care about moral and spiritual poverty. Reno’s conclusion is that a more holistic understanding of “the poor” will lead us to a conservative social agenda that favors stabilizing families, nurturing shared community norms and enriching public culture.

The problem, as I read Reno’s perspective, is that a secular “preferential option” focuses on economic conditions, leaving moral poverty to libertine impulses. “Who are we to judge?” after all. Yet this bastardizes a properly Christian conception of care for the poor; what good does it do to provide material benefits to a family without the the moral sense to make sound long-term decisions? For example, why should the state subsidize pregnancies among single low-income women without also teaching them the virtue of chastity?

Poverty of spirit is just as dangerous and just as open to repair as material poverty, yet left-wing activists encourage redistribution and big-government schemes to repair the latter while paying the former no heed. Is that virtuous? Or is it a bastardization of the full and authentic meaning of the “preferential option?”

Reno’s analysis is spot-on, and well-worth the read. Were I to add anything to his commentary, it would merely be this: Even if you do focus only on helping the poor in a material sense, the virtue that attaches comes from doing it yourself. There is no real spiritual benefit to paying higher taxes to fund a government redistribution of wealth. The spiritual and moral benefit to helping the poor comes from working the soup kitchen or rape crisis center. It doesn’t come from mere advocacy or from writing a check.

Jesus also said: “Woe to the rich, for they have already enjoyed their reward.” Woe also to the armchair liberal who would rather be seen to be virtuous among his peers while doing very little to help the poor in the ways that matter most. They have already enjoyed their reward.

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